Truffles for All Seasons
Truffles have been known and appreciated since antiquity, and the craziest legends circulated about their origin, especially around the 1st century CE: a product of thunderbolts (Plutarch, Greek historian), an inexplicable miracle of nature that can only be received as a gift bestowed by the gods on worthy peoples and cannot be cultivated (Pliny the Elder, Roman naturalist and philosopher). Juvenal, a Roman poet also from the first century CE, put two and two together and concluded that since bolts where usually thrown by Jupiter and that he was renowned for his sexual appetite that must have meant that truffles were a powerful aphrodisiac (sorry, we can't find any hard evidence of this in modern science)! In the middle ages, this mysterious delicacy growing from the bowels of the earth was thought to be the food of witches and demons. Nowadays there's no mystery as to the origin of truffles, but Pliny was not that far away from the truth: truffles cannot be sown or farm-grown and their unpredictability explains their exorbitant prices. Truffles form spontaneously below the soil, from which - unlike mushrooms - they never emerge. They attach to the roots of oaks, willows and linden trees and live off of the tree, which confers its distinctive aroma to its precious parasite: more pungent if close to an oak tree, truffles growing close to linden trees are more aromatic and of a lighter hue.
Since they can't be spotted by the human eye, this hidden treasure could only be found thanks to its scent. In the Middle Ages, truffles were hunted for with pigs, more precisely female pigs as popular belief had it that the truffle's scent was similar to the smell of sex hormones secreted by the boar. In fact, sows could unearth truffles growing as deep as 10 feet underground, the problem being to prevent them from devouring the precious find. To this end, truffle hunters used to place an iron ring on the sow's snout, much like it is done with cows, which led some bewildered tourists wonder why on earth were Italians taking their pigs grazing in the woods. When, in the 18th century, truffles become a delicacy favored by royals and the aristocracy, pigs were replaced with more aristocratic animals, dogs especially bred as truffle-hunters, and the hunt itself was turned into a social event to which the most prominent Piedmontese family would accompany the royal family.
In 1949, when truffles already had a well established reputation in Europe (English poet George Byron used to keep one on his desk because he said its aroma revived his inspiration), Piedmontese producer Giacomo Morra, a marketing genius, initiated the annual tradition of presenting the best specimen of the year to a worldwide celebrity (and, being an Italian, he offered the first one to Rita Hayworth, who was considered the best looking woman alive..).
This tradition, along with the annual holding of the International Truffle Festival that takes place in Alba from early October until late November, have greatly contributed to make an event out of truffle hunting and make available to a larger public of foodies the incomparable taste and scent of this hidden treasure of the earth. Over five weekends, Alba is swarmed with truffle enthusiasts who can live the atmosphere of the Middle Ages, with parades and open air markets that bring back to life the ancient history of the capital of truffles.
The high point of the event is the World White Truffle Auction held in the magnificent setting of Grinzane Cavour castle, since 2014 a UNESCO world heritage site together with the Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont . At this period of the year, truffles reach their highest price. In 2015 the average was $95/oz for the most common variety up to $168/oz for the top ones. It is worth noting that the proceeds of the Auction, typically from $250,000 to $300,000, go entirely to charities. For the 2015 auction, the proceeds for Italy have gone to the construction of a new hospital.
Clemente Inaudi owner of the eponymous company that is partnering with Savors Of Europe for mushrooms, truffles and associated products, was distinguished at the 2011 World White Truffle of Alba Auction. Specimens of white truffle were auctioned for a total amount of close to $300,000 of which one third went for the double catch presented by C. inaudi.